Who the hell is Joe Cornish and what is 'Attack the Block'?
It's easy to imagine that's what most people have been wondering since 'Attack the Block' was met with almost unanimous adoration following its world premiere at SXSW less than a week ago. Those familiar with Cornish's work on British TV and radio may have been more familiar with the special blend of bemused horror in store, but for the most part no one had any idea what to expect from this Edgar Wright-produced movie about an inner city gang who fight off an alien invasion.
And that's the way it should be. There's no reason to know the film's plot intricacies going in. Just go in knowing that this is not your standard alien invasion movie out of Hollywood. This isn't a megabudget movie filled with name actors and huge explosions. This is a beast of a film all its own.
So don't worry, nothing in the below interview with Joe Cornish is spoilery. We don't talk plot or specific moments in the film, we just talk about tone, intent, and the kind of movies that, to use Cornish's own words, "blow your tits off."
Approaching a well-tread genre like this, did you make a checklist of things you didn't want to do? Or did you just write what you wanted and see what came up?
I'm like 40, so I've had a while to think about it. Like you, I'm a film fan. Film to me is what sports is to other people. I love to be opinionated and argue and wrestle with stuff and tussle with my friends. So like anyone I have a set of values and opinions that I did apply to this.
And being British, there's this constant thing of... Okay, we share this common language with America, which has evolved this incredibly sophisticated movie industry. And Britain occasionally hits one out of the park, but we don't seem able to turn things over on an industrial level with quite the consistency that America does. So that's always been a debate in Britain; what are the Americans doing right that we can do.
Obviously there are a lot of brilliant filmmakers in Britain, but a lot of them don't tend to stay in Britain. So yeah, absolutely I formulated a whole set of opinions and yeah, subconsciously and consciously I definitely did. It's something I wanted to do since I was like 13, like everybody else. I've always fantasized about doing it.
The films I love are high-concept, low-budget movies. Directors who, for their first film, go "I'm going to do something a little too big, but I'm going to try to do it in a resourceful, clever way." Like 'Terminator,' like an early Besson movie, like 'Duel, like 'THX1138.' I'm going to bite off a little bit more than I can chew – I'm talking about those films, the ones I aspire to – and for everything they lack in production values that's equaled or surpassed by authorship or invention or resourcefulness.
For me, a high-concept, low-budget film is cooler and more rewarding than a high-concept, high-budget film. They've had to try harder to get there, do you know what I mean? It's like animation. You can feel the love that's gone into every frame, which you sometimes can't with cynical, big budget things.
Was this a project you had attempted in any way to get off the ground in America? Or was it completely home grown?
No, it didn't occur to me. Obviously working with Edgar Wright with Marvel on 'Ant Man,' they're amazing to work with; I was extremely lucky to work with Edgar and Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson on 'Tin-Tin,' so working with those guys has made me comfortable [in America]. But before that stuff happened, Hollywood seemed kind of terrifying to me. But in Britain I had a television career and a radio career and was known in a much smaller circle, so that to me was a cozy, comforting place to make my first film.
I've spoken to other British directors, like Christopher Smith, who feel the same way, that it can be such a bother to work in the LA system that if you can make a movie in Britain, why wouldn't you?
It's a question of authority, I think. It's easier to get a little bit of authority in Britain. Jeepers creepers, in America it's a whole different ball game.
Well between 'Attack the Block' and 'Heartless' we've got two recent genre films that do deal with the youth of Britain becoming monsters or behaving like monsters. Is that a widespread paranoia in Britain? In 'Heartless' it's more literal that they're becoming demons, which is why I like that your film shows that these are people too and that they have the heart to even be good people.
I haven't seen 'Heartless,' but my film is – and it's not necessary to know this to enjoy the film – but it is a reaction to brilliantly crafted, brilliantly made, but to me slightly dubious morally, films that demonize children.
That's a nice movie. I like that movie. I like 'Village of the Damned,' I love 'Who Could Kill a Child?' I'm not saying that's a bad trope, but some filmmakers have demonized inner city, poor kids.
It seems like more of a reaction to the older generation looking down on the younger generation.
It is. It's pretty straight forward. I don't think it's a particularly innovative idea to suggest there might be good in a person who has done something bad. My hero is an anti-hero, but he's a hero who realizes the error of ways and redeems himself to a degree. I'm not expecting people to sympathize with him, but I am asking that they empathize a little. Anti-hero per se is not a new thing. They go back to Jimmy Cagney in 'Public Enemy' or Bonnie and Clyde or Snake Plisken, for me those are interesting characters.
As a movie goer, I think there's too much onus on making your character lovable and sympathetic in the first act. I dig movies where it's a little bit ambiguous.
That's one of the things I love most about 'Attack the Block.' It doesn't make you comfortable with these characters.
I was excited to switch it. One of the things that made me excited about writing it was to start with this Michael Winner, Abel Ferrara kind of scenario of the lone female and then the mugging and then she just runs away and you're stuck with the kid that did it. For me that's exciting, but I know for a lot of people it'll be weird, "Oh, f**k those kids!" But as a film lover and someone who is looking for inspiration, that was the thing that made me excited; the challenge of turning it around. I thought, "Now here's a story!"
Since it's been gestating for so long in your brain, was it always a straight to the event approach?
I just love movies that are about action and kinetics and motion. I used to spend a lot of time in college, at film school, stoned and watching soap operas and I used to try and think, "What is the difference between this soap opera and a movie." And one of the things I thought was that a good movie you cannot not watch. With TV, even good TV, you can go make a cup of coffee and still be able to hear the dialogue. But a good movie, for me as a fan, if you look away you might miss it. So I wanted to make a movie that was about dialogue and not make a film that was about expositional dialogue.
I wanted to make a film that was short. I love 'Evil Dead 2,' I love 'Terminator' 2 and 1, 'Duel'-- they're all about kinetics and chase movies, basically, and Britain doesn't make a lot of them, so I wanted to give it a go.
I love that you understand music is a big part of that, and that it needs to fit the tone and not just be orchestral because that's what others do, so you brought in Basement Jaxx.
They worked with a guy called Steve Price who was the music supervisor on 'Scott Pilgrim' and works a lot with Edgar, he worked on the 'Lord of the Rings' films. He's a brilliant music editor, but this was his first score and he worked with Simon and Felix from Basement Jaxx.
Since this is your first film and you worked with a creative dream team it probably doesn't apply, but since it seems many more popular musicians are now getting into scoring movies, do you think that's more acceptable now? That no one raises an eyebrow if you opt away from traditional composers?
Again, that's the nice thing about making a film in Britain. Once you've raised the money people care and they give you notes and stuff, but they had confidence in my instincts. I studied a lot of John Carpenter and have learned a lot about scores since making this film. It happens late in the process and massively affects the tone. So, historically, if you read a lot about film you'll hear about directors firing composers, switching out scores and making big changes. Quentin Tarantino doesn't use a composer because he wonders why he needs someone else's music to define his film, so he scores from his own record collection.
It's a thing filmmakers have strong opinions about and now I understand why. It comes in at the eleventh hour and it can affect your whole film. It's interesting because Carpenter famously wrote his own scores because he wasn't happy with the composed score. "It's part of my movie, my authorship, it's too important not to do it myself."
So, yeah, we studied Carpenter; Basement Jaxx and Steve Price studied Carpenter and they just kind of nailed it, luckily. Steve helped them – he worked with Beck and all those bands on 'Scott Pilgrim,' so he's great on corralling crazy pop musicians into the tight schedule of the film.
How long was the schedule? It kind of came out of nowhere, coming from someone who writes about movies for a living, that's a great thing.
Well I like that. As I said last night, that's how movies used to be. When I saw 'Predator' I had no idea it was an alien. I saw it in Paris subtitled and I had no idea, I thought it was a war movie. And he pays that creature out so slowly; the sound, the blood, the laser sight, the cloaking device, the wrist, the jaw. You don't see the whole thing until the end and it blew my tits off and you just don't get that anymore.
Though, this wasn't by design, I just thought no one was interested. I mean, who am I? I'm nobody and my connection is with Edgar, that's the best I've got in America. My work in England isn't known over here. It wasn't premeditated, but it's a lucky symptom of not being known here that I can lead with the film and the film can come out of nowhere. Not that it will just yet since it doesn't have distribution...